Convert Biomass into Syngas Fast: No Extra Carbon Needed

A technological breakthrough from the University of Minnesota lab of Lanny Schmidt takes sugar water, soy oil, or biodiesel and converts it directly to Syngas (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide). Dubbed "reactive flash volatilization process", this technology is fast, small, and has the potential of being carbon neutral.

The design consists of first atomizing droplets of the fuel (sugar water or soy oil in this case). Then these small droplets hit a porous ceramic catalyst disk that is heated to over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the droplets are small, and the catalyst so very hot, they do not have a chance to burn and are converted into their theoretical maximal yield of hydrogen.

"The secret is ultrafast flash volatilization [vaporization]," said Schmidt. "It happens here because we vaporize the fuel and mix it with oxygen before it sees the catalyst so it doesn't burn to char. This is potentially 100 times faster than what is currently available to make syngas and hydrogen."

The heating of the porous catalyst is what you could call the only 'primer' in the system, once going it doesn't need more heating. Theoretically you could use the fuel produced from previous runs to heat the disk initially, thus a carbon neutral system- no fossil fuel required.

"It's a way to take cheap, worthless biomass and turn it into useful fuels and chemicals," says Schmidt. "Potentially, the biomass could be used cooking oil or even products from cow manure, yard clippings, cornstalks or trees. It's better than bringing oil from Saudi Arabia to fuel your gas station."

The researchers used clean and refined products for their test; sugar water and soy oil. It is not clear how easy it will be to convert this technology to 'dirty' sources of fuel, such as wood chips or bio-waste that have more then just the reactants needed. The idea being tossed around is that because the temperature is so hot, you don't need to do the expensive and time consuming process of extracting the sugar (or oil) from the cellulose structure- instead the heat vaporizes the cellulose and the reaction can take place immediately, thus the incredibly fast production of fuels from waste products. A new chore for the kids- cleaning out the reactor catalyst.

But some fuels will be trickier then others, the sugar water experiment made me think of other natural sources of more refined sugar: I wonder how much maple syrup it would take to fuel a house for a year with this device? I think I'll plant a couple of sugar maples this winter. Photo credit of device to Patrick O'Leary::UMN News